“Breaking the Vase” or how women are becoming border guards in Central Asia and Afghanistan


The ‘vase’ has been slowly shattering in many countries as law enforcement agencies, somewhat hesitatingly, have opened their doors to women. Border police services are arguably one of the last outposts reluctant to include women in their ranks. The reluctance has often been mutual, with few women relishing postings away from home and family, in isolated and hostile locations, working for long periods alongside large numbers of men.

The strategic shift from viewing border guards as responsible for defence of the state to protection of citizens – and thereby easing the ‘unhampered flow’ of goods, persons and services - has demanded not only reform and expansion but inclusivity. Representative law enforcement institutions have become an operational necessity.

"In Afghanistan it is the tradition for women to stay home, take care of the house, cooking, cleaning, raise the children, and if they go outside the home they must be veiled. We have a saying, ‘women are the flowers and the home is their vase.

We are breaking the vase."

Afghan female participant, Border Police

Ministry of Interior, Kabul

The 21st century has witnessed a massive increase in mobility and the numbers of labour migrants, women exceeding men numerically, crossing borders primarily for trade and employment but also for education, marriage and adventure. The vast majority, looking for employment opportunities and the doorway to a better life for their families, are among the poorest, the least educated and skilled women, with limited employment options. They too are breaking the vase.

But it’s not so easy. Tough visa restrictions make it harder for women to migrate legally. Often lacking access to information, low literacy levels, difficulty with legal documents and restrictions on travel without male family approval lead women to take the human smuggling route. Expensive, often dangerous and exploitative, it leaves them vulnerable and illegal at their destination – too easily caught in the human trafficking spiral.

In Central Asia women play a significant role in the centuries-old institution of bazaars, trading in great volume and diversity of goods. They operate alone, in groups of women, or as members of families engaged in small trading of agricultural and other local produce. They sell in the bazaars or move goods across borders. Typical are the shuttle traders who buy, transport and re-sell or re-fashion fabric into garments.

"I grew up in a family of border guards. Besides my father, both my mother and sister are border professionals. Moreover in one of the border detachments where I worked, 80% of the staff were women. They were the ones with an incredible sense of responsibility and constantly paid attention to details. These are the qualities that made them effective and successful. Judging from the numbers of threats we face nowadays, I don’t think we can afford to lose this kind of potential.

I believe that for any agency to reach its full potential everyone must be involved in its work. That’s why we’ve introduced women empowerment programmes. The results of a number of discussions held during the staff course for female officers show that women wait to be invited to participate in new opportunities. So let’s involve them!"

Alexander Eliseev,

Chief of Education, BMSC, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

During the past five years the OSCE’s Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, has delivered numerous courses on border management. Not surprisingly, attendance by women from any of the participating states and partners, in a historically male-dominated profession, has been limited by the number of women available to attend. For women who attend as a minority it can also be challenging to participate fully and have their voices heard.

In May 2014 the college introduced its first all-women staff course. The course content included the standard topics ranging from management models to information-sharing, migration, human trafficking and smuggling, counter-terrorism, anti-corruption measures, conflict management and leadership. There was also a two-day Train the Trainers session and a requirement for group research and presentation on selected topics.

Participants included twenty-five mid and senior-level female officers of the border, customs and drug control agencies of Afghanistan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Romania and Tajikistan.

For Afghan women the challenges are particular and acute. In a culture where employment in law enforcement has often been frowned upon or banned by husbands and family, those breaking the vase are true pioneers. In addition to the social restrictions many women prefer other forms of employment. In spite of the challenges the advantages are evident.

Where women are veiled and male/female contact rigorously regulated the presence of female border personnel ensures not only the maintenance of social norms but a high degree of security. Restrictions on movement, imposed in the name of security, demand higher standards of scrutiny. Female law enforcement personnel are essential in order to meet those standards.

The essential skills Afghan women bring to conducting searches, interviewing women and children, examining documents, or collaborating with victim support organizations highlight the need for women border officers in all countries.

For women migrants, as for shuttle traders, the presence of women officers at border crossing points can help create an experience that is less frightening and confusing. Knowing they can ask questions and be dealt with as a woman, by another woman, can be an encouragement to taking legal migration routes rather than irregular means of border crossing. The presence of women border officers is no guarantee, but can contribute significantly to a positive, safe environment.

This is in the interests of the individual and the state. While the migrant is saved from increased vulnerability and illegality, the state need commit fewer resources to pursuit of smugglers and the legal wrangles of investigation, arrest, imprisonment and deportation. In crude financial terms, investment in more women border officials makes economic sense.

Shattering the vase not only means employment and professional opportunities for women, improved border security and ease of movement for women travellers, traders and migrants, but provides opportunities for women in senior positions to influence policy decisions and to speak out.

The experiences of migrants, men and women, many of whom are cheated and exploited by ‘legal’ contracts overseas, are typically more often revealed to a woman. The shame of deception and failure is profound and not easily spoken of to men – or family members. Migration officers are witness to these accounts.

Examples from other countries also demonstrate the variety of specialized positions women can hold. All-women police units (such as the unit from India that provides security to high-ranking UN personnel); women-led canine teams or tracker-scouts; managing ‘smartgate’ immigration desks; specialists in surveillance technology – all provide options for employing specific skills that can attract women recruits and provide an all-women environment to satisfy cultural anxieties.

In addition to the intensive 4-week classroom activities, participants visited the Tajik-Afghan border crossing at Panji Poyon, most southerly point of the former Soviet Union, and a stark reminder of the challenges of working in tough conditions. In summer the temperature reaches close to 50C, the terrain is bleak and windswept, living conditions basic coupled with isolation and a two-hour journey to the capital. Tajik women border guards work here too. It is a test of anyone’s mettle.

The all-women course included two ‘bookends’ at the start and close of the course that gave an opportunity for them to join in discussions specifically responding to their role as women in border management. During the first week they were encouraged to develop group presentations on the key challenges facing women in law enforcement.

Pervasive throughout the presentations, traditional patriarchal practice and prejudice was high on the list of challenges that these women face. In spite of increased civic participation and improved economic justice for women, plus the existence of good laws to protect and promote women’s rights and gender equality, the failure of implementation and lack of knowledge and awareness by the public continue to slow the pace of change.

Employment practices coupled with traditional attitudes to women’s place in society have not significantly eased the asymmetry of the multiple roles women fulfil – border officer, wife and mother. Male colleagues continue to be protective while expectations of obedience to men persist.

Paradoxically, in this profession where women bring a different style and are judged less likely to resort to brutality and violence, they continue to be subjected to discrimination and harassment by male colleagues, and are often not fully respected by the public.

The participants shared common demands for change: equal standards of employment, access to training and experience necessary for promotion, an end to harassment and bullying, improved working conditions and inclusion in all aspects of border officer tasks. They specifically want gender equality to be promoted as an advantage, a benefit for all women and men, and not merely a catchphrase.

At the close of the month-long course a Round Table was organized on “Strengthening Border Management and Security via Gender Mainstreaming.” The women vigorously defended the need to promote women to the higher decision-making positions and engaged in lively argument with a male border guard on the issue of women’s capacity to perform their duties.

They were also realistic and recognized that the changes in behaviour and attitude they want to see need time to take effect. For the immediate future they see their responsibility, on returning home, is to advocate their agencies for changes and to initiate more trainings and public awareness campaigns to recruit more vase-breakers and challenge cultural stereotypes of the roles and responsibilities of women and men.

The vase cannot be repaired.

Angela Mackay



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Kaminski, B and Mitra, S (2013) Skeins of Silk: Borderless Bazaars and Border Trade in Central Asia

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OXFAM (2013) Women and the Afghan Police: OXFAM Briefing Paper